Elderberry, an Old Friend

ELDERBERRY – Sambucus spp.     Black Elderberry, Blue-berry Elder, “Old Friend” “Food, Physic and Folklore”

The Elderberry is not normally considered a “healing herb for the garden” but I would like you to consider it indeed as deserving of a spot somewhere along the edges of the yard, garden, or enclosure since it offers not only culinary and medicinal use, it also offers horticultural interest when placed “just so”.

Elderberry bush in flower
Elderberry bush in flower


Native to central Europe and North America, the Elderberry, or simply Elder or even Sambucus, is a vigorous tree-like shrub, 10-30’ tall, and a member of the Honeysuckle family. Leaves are pinnate on long 10-12” stems. The tiny flowers are borne in cloud-like clusters, and followed in late summer by blue/blue-black berries (red berries are toxic and used only for ornamental purposes).  Many people say the berries taste better after a frost.

Elderberry is a good plant for background sites (similar to spirea), informal group plantings, and does well where it can sprawl.  It likes full sun to partial shade, and rich moist soil, but is fairly forgiving as long as it has drainage and moisture (S. caerulea is more drought tolerant).

Cut out old stems and suckers when dormant, and trim new growth to a few inches.

North American species include American Elderberry, S. canadensis; and Western blue-berry elder, S. caerulea. Black Elderberry, S. nigra, is the European species. There are many cultivars including “Black Lace” (finely dissected leaves), “Black Beauty” (pink flowers, dark purple leaves), and “Variegated” (white and green, gold and green). Suitable varieties for North Idaho include “York” (productive large berries), “Nova” (a good pollinator), and “Adams” (large fruit) [available at All Season’s ].

Remains of Sambucus have been found in archaeological sites dating back to the Stone Age. Before harvesting any flowers or berries, be sure and ask permission first from the Elder Mother who inhabits the tree, she can be very touchy if you don’t show respect!

Elderberry bush with berries
Elderberry bush with berries


Roots, stems and leaves contain cathartic compounds (accelerates defecation) – do not ingest! The leaves, however, have a history of use externally in balms.

Elder Flower Tea has many uses. Combine with equal parts yarrow flower and peppermint and use for relieving flu symptoms, 1tsp. dried herbs/1c. boiling water 3xday; this blend is diaphoretic – it will make you sweat, helping break a fever and reduce achiness.  Plain Elderflower Tea is useful for spasmodic cough, and it helps remove metabolic waste associated with arthritis.

Flower decoction in the bath is used to ease dermatitis, eczema, chicken pox, anxiety (a good choice for children). A decoction is like a tea only it’s simmered several minutes before steeping, making it stronger.

Elder Flower Water is as much a delight to make as it is to use: Take 1qt. fresh flowers, place in a clean canning jar, cover with boiling water (leaving a little headspace),  and let cool; add 2oz. 100-pf. Vodka; cover with cloth overnight, strain the next day, keeps 2 weeks. Use as a gentle skin toner, and especially on blemishes, sunburn, eczema, psoriasis, dandruff.

Dried Elderberries have a history of use which is somewhat pleasant, they are mulled with cinnamon in red wine and said to chase away the flu. Crushed dried elderberries make a healthful cup of tea, containing – among other things – quercetin and anthocyanins, flavonoids that enhance immune function by boosting the production of cytokines (metabolic messengers).

Sambucus berries
Sambucus berries


DO NOT EAT RED BERRIES (whether they be unripe berries or of the red variety)


It’s not difficult to make ripe black or blue elderberries safe to eat – simply cook them first as in for pie, jam, syrup and wine (sublime), or dry them first and use them like raisins.

Fresh elderflowers are edible and choice, and their aroma is somewhat spicy. Use them in muffins and cakes (shake well to dislodge any insects, and then remove from the green stems). And by all means, make them into fritters!


© 2016 Doreen Shababy